2009 was an unprecedented year in the history of Norwegian cinema. Max Manus broke all previous records to become the most commercially successful Norwegian film to date.
With a budget of 55 million kroner it was also the most expensive Norwegian production ever, aspiring to blockbuster status on every level. Shaping its ambitions upon the achievements of the Hollywood model, the Norwegian film industry is gaining a notable presence on the international stage, with a growing export value, and an increase in the number of festival entries.
But how much of this growing interest is fuelled by the impact of a single film, whose success seems founded upon a combination of financial and patriotic investment, rather than artistic achievement? Is Max Manus a film that is really worthy of introducing Norwegian cinema to the world as a serious and significant creative force?
Norwegian cinema has had an erratic presence on the international film scene. In the past, Norwegian films have been watched almost exclusively by a domestic audience, and as a result have remained within a fairly insular tradition. Even now, the Nordic countries remain the most important market, due in part to joint distribution arrangements and funding initiatives overseen by the Nordisk Film & TV Fond.
But Norwegian films have received significant attention in recent years and the Norwegian Film Institute (NFI) is concentrating its efforts on internationalisation, with a commitment to ‘[promoting] Norwegian films in Norway and abroad’.
Aside from the success of Max Manus, which remains largely a national phenomenon, a number of films have been recognised with awards and critical plaudits. Hans Patter Moland’s comedy En ganske snill mann (A Somewhat Gentle Man, 2010) was recently awarded the Berliner Morgenpost Audience Prize at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival; Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense’s Burma VJ (2008) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and Sara Johnsen’s Upperdog (2009) received the Jury Grand Prix at the Nordic Film Festival in Rouen in March.
Espen Sandberg (L) and Joachim Rønning
Copyright:Erik Aavatsmark/FilmkamerateneNorwegian filmmakers are in a privileged position financially, and the success of Max Manus has bolstered the confidence of Norway’s film financiers, with a dramatic increase in film budgets. The impact of this has yet to be seen, but it will inevitably remould the shape of the industry, for better and for worse. The availability of financial backing for big-budget projects may work to the disadvantage of the quality of the films themselves, encouraging the proliferation of action filled blockbusters.
A dramatic retelling of Thor Heyerdahl’s Academy Award winning Kon Tiki, with a budget of 63 million kroner, is scheduled for release in 2012, directed by the Max Manus partnership of Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning. Resources are being focused on making things bigger and better; is originality being replaced by commercial ambition? We can only hope that financial risks will not replace artistic ones.
The desire to emulate Hollywood poses a threat both to the artistic integrity of Norwegian filmmaking, and the proliferation of a recognisable cinematic identity. The art-house films for which Sweden and Denmark are so well respected follow a distinctive and identifiable pattern in both stylistic and thematic terms, valuing experimentation and individuality above commercial interest.
Norwegian films are conspicuously absent from the history of Scandinavian cinema. Both Sweden and Denmark have gained international recognition for their original and influential stylistic approach, and have featured as prominent forces on the international stage for many years. Norwegian film has never received such levels of critical interest or commercial success. While film critics consistently acknowledge the influential position of Swedish and Danish filmmakers, Norway is often neglected, with only a handful of Norwegian films considered worthy of such attention.
Perhaps this may in part be explained by the absence of a culture of the auteur in Norwegian filmmaking, with many Norwegian directors known only for a single work. The history of Norwegian cinema is one of great individual films made rather than great individuals. Norway does not have a Bergman or a Von Trier to signify a distinctive mode of filmmaking; there is no recognisable tradition through which to understand the development of its cinematic history. It is a far more varied and in many ways chaotic history, hard to classify and hard to distinguish.
As with any cultural medium, the development of Norwegian cinema closely reflects the various stages through which the country has progressed in modern history. The dissolution of the Swedish-Norwegian union in 1905 was almost synonymous with the invention of cinema, and the newly independent nation was in possession of a new artistic medium through which to develop and establish its identity.
But it was not until the 1920’s that Norwegian filmmaking began to flourish; films such as Gunnar Sommerfeldt’s Markens Grøde (The Growth of the Soil, 1920), adapted from Knut Hamsun’s novel of the same name, and Rasmus Breistein’s Fante-Anne (Gypsy Anne, 1920), emphasised a preoccupation with rural themes, reflecting the humble lives of the majority of the population, and exploiting the symbolic power of the country’s spectacular landscapes.
The 1930’s saw the rise of the ‘talkie’, and with it a change in thematic focus, with a transition from rustic, rural stories to urban settings, along with many literary adaptations of classic novels. The momentum of this development was soon interrupted by the Nazi occupation, during which all films were subject to strict censorship, so that most of the films produced were harmless comedies with little artistic integrity.
The post-war period is perhaps the most interesting of all in the history of Norwegian film, with the emergence of a
Water power station at Rjukan
G.Lanting/Wikimedia Commonsnew generation of filmmakers, fuelled by wartime experience and optimism for the future. Films dramatising the Norwegian resistance were particularly important. The country had a new mythology: that of heroism, both tragic and triumphant – stories and icons conducive to emotive and dramatic filmmaking.
As the country was emerging from the scars of the occupation, it was also becoming more prosperous than ever before, and was gradually recognising and exhibiting a new identity. A number of films from this period – Englandsfarere (We Leave for England, 1946), Kampen om tungtvannet (The Battle for Heavy Water, 1948) and Ni Liv (Nine Lives, 1957) remain among the most enduring classics of Norwegian cinema.
In the 1960’s, the influence of European Modernism was palpable, though international films were far more popular than their Norwegian counterparts, which failed to achieve commercial success. The activist youth boom of the 1970’s saw a more rebellious period and an emphasis on social realism, focusing on the communication of political messages rather than style or artistry.
Perhaps inevitably, this led to a decline in the 1980’s, as filmmakers began to turn to America for lessons in the art of cinematic storytelling. Few countries have undergone so dramatic a change in such a short time; from a poor nation under successive periods of rule by outsiders, Norway has become one of the richest nations in the world, strongly influenced by American culture, and eager to assert itself internationally in every field.
This brief history of the development of Norwegian cinema testifies to the impact of social upheaval upon artistic productivity. Today, it is countries like Romania, expressing the scars of its troubled past, that are making their mark on the international film industry. Perhaps the relative stability of Norway’s recent history can partly account for the lack of critical attention bestowed upon its films.
Filmmakers themselves seem uncertain of the interest their stories will generate abroad, and tend to target their films towards a local, domestic audience. Romantic comedies may have their value as entertainment within the Scandinavian market, but will never be able to compete beyond this. Perhaps what the international audience really craves, and what, surely, Norwegian filmmakers can do best, is stories about Norwegian life and Norwegian people, free from the often prohibitive aspirations of the Hollywood blockbuster model.
Norwegian documentaries have already gained widespread recognition; perhaps feature films ought to aspire to something closer to the social realism of cinema’s early days, returning to the lives and stories of real people, and introducing the world to the qualities and eccentricities of Norwegian life. Norway’s complex and varied history, its rich literary heritage and mythology, its spectacular landscapes and amalgamation of different cultural backgrounds – the inspiration for great films is all there, waiting to be drawn upon.
Norwegian Film School, Lillehammer
Finn Olsen/Norwegian Film SchoolThere is no doubt that this is a very exciting time for Norwegian filmmakers. One significant presence behind the rejuvenation of Norwegian cinema is the Norwegian Film School (NFS) in Lillehammer, which opened after the 1994 winter Olympics, using the facilities of the games’ media centre. The film school has seen a succession of ambitious graduates who have played a crucial role in shaping the current industry.
The NFS places emphasis both on the cultural importance of a local film industry, and on Norway’s presence in the international community. It encourages collaboration, and teaches filmmaking as the product of a collective project between directors, writers and cinematographers. Whilst many countries base the success of their film industry upon the work of a select group of directors and actors, Norwegian filmmaking may well reflect the socialist, egalitarian ethos that is so apparent in the country’s political and social organisation.
The absence of a notable list of prominent auteurs need not equate with the absence of great filmmaking. Perhaps we should rather look towards Norwegian film as an extension of its politics, valuing collaboration and cooperation above the distinction of the individual.